Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

General Introduction

If there is one theme that could be said to characterize this otherwise disparate collection of stories and observations it would be the aforementioned paradox of intelligence. We are far and away the most intelligent species on Earth, but half the time you just wouldn’t know it.

In fact, it often seems that the gift of reason, that uniquely human attribute, actually gives us a permanent licence to act really stupidly. It’s certainly the case that creatures of lesser brain-power than ourselves do not engage in mutually destructive wars, do not follow obviously psychotic leaders, do not allow themselves to become addicted to powerful narcotics, do not poison and despoil their environment etc. etc.. But we humans do all of these and many other idiotic things on a fairly continuous basis, and what is worse we usually feel that our actions are entirely justified and are prepared to vigorously defend them. We are smart, but stupid too.

Humans are complicated entities to begin with; their plans and interactions create even more involved situations. We are capable, to a far greater extent than any other species, of adjusting to widely different behavioural patterns, but we can spin off at a tangent, behaviourally speaking, in almost as many ways. Religious precepts and moral codes have never been a guarantee against excessive and vicious forms of behaviour; in fact more often than not they have provided the justification for them. If we can generalize at all in these matters it can only be to restate the obvious; i.e. that people can become utterly convinced of the legitimacy of the most peculiar ideas; that they can be extremely determined in their pursuit of these; and of course, that they can at the same time be horribly self-seeking. So the material presented here is of two kinds: accounts of misplaced and deluded actions, and of thoughtful analysis. I leave it to the reader to decide which aspect they are more interested in …

Of course, intelligence can’t be arranged on a simple graduated scale. If it were, intelligent people would only do intelligent things and all the dumb, senseless actions would be performed by those at the other end of the scale. But this is clearly not the case; in fact almost the reverse is true. Great minds and great leaders throughout history have consistently engaged in ill-advised actions, and because they have tended to occupy positions of influence, their errors were all the more damaging. One could go further. There is plenty of evidence that the majority of the more pointless examples of human activity through the ages have been initiated and overseen by those of far higher than average intelligence. Moreover, these initiatives were frequently undertaken with the very best of intentions.

Actually, the whole field of human mental capability (and moral acumen) is riddled with paradoxes and contradictions of this kind. Not least the fact that, although most us feel that we can recognize intelligence when we see it, in practice it has always proved to be an extremely elusive quality to pin down. Many scientists have spent the best part of their careers trying to measure intelligence, with little generally-accepted success, and the whole subject remains controversial. It now seems pretty clear though that mental capability exists in more than one form - which is to say that there are several kinds of intelligence - and by extension, of unintelligence. It may be that the ways our mind/brains work will ultimately prove to be beyond complete scientific analysis. The matter is certainly complicated, and most of us will have met people in whom cleverness and silliness (and good and bad behaviour) are thoroughly intermingled.

But there is clearly another factor at work here. The unique qualities that characterise the human mind, that which marks us out from all other animals, lies in our ability to deal with the world in creative and unprogrammed ways. We are not tied to the rigidity of instinct. But this intellectual adaptability and flexibility makes us uniquely susceptible to retroversive effects. That is to say, that our reasoning power all too easily turns back on itself – often with self-defeating, or self-deceiving results. We might draw a (not very precise) analogy with the autoimmune reaction, where the body’s finely honed immune system can occasionally become aberrant and its responses misdirected towards its own body-cells and tissues, with disastrous results. In a similar way, our normally competent intellectual faculties can be deflected towards unintelligent, unreasonable and ultimately self-harmful, activities and modes of thought. Actually, this happens a lot, and the outcomes are all too familiar. Irrational impulses can be rationalised; high intelligence can be brought to bear on highly unintelligent causes; high moral purpose may camouflage low instincts, and so on. Like aberrant immune responses, these effects can also be disastrous, but whereas the former are relatively unusual, misdirected intelligence is common. H. sapiens is indeed ‘retro-rational’ by nature, and this is essentially why the smart and stupid things we do are inseparably linked.

If history shows us anything, it is the extraordinary persistence with which humans engage in actions and patterns of behaviour that are clearly against their own best interests. There is a dreadful historical repetitiveness surrounding the many accounts of human folly and excess. It would appear that our impressive mental capabilities only aspire to rationality, and are in practice are always inseparable from a whole range of quite irrational beliefs and impulses. Foremost among these, of course, are those instincts that are part of our simian inheritance. Judging by the prevalence of ‘chimpanzee politics’ in just about every human social activity, we are just as driven to assert our standing within the group as our ape cousins, and we can just as easily get caught up in the kind of inter-group suspicions and hostility that characterises their existence.

But although our lives have a certain commonality with the jostling, social tensions of the other primates, we are obviously very different, more complex, animals. Above all, and uniquely, we have language. Language is absolutely central to human experience. It forms the very basis of our self-awareness, of our place within a particular cultural setting and of our compliance with particular moral norms. There is, however, a proportionately high price-tag on this remarkable adaptation, in that it seems to involve a certain abstracted detachment from reality. Unlike other animals we are not tied to immediacy – we do not respond instinctively, as they do, to every situation. This means that we are not, like all other animals, hard-core realists. Rather, we tend to view and comprehend the world according to learned values, that is to say, through a particular cultural lens - and most of our responses are conditioned accordingly. Essentially, acculturation, without which we are less than completely human, involves ‘emplotment’.

We live our lives, to a greater extent than we ever really appreciate, in accordance with a story-line, or rather, to a highly evolved compound of narratives. And paradox enters the picture here too. Our cultural narratives sustain our existence and give meaning to our every aspect of our lives - but they can also go swinging off in most peculiar directions. In fact, although we rely on them, these narratives almost inevitably, have their own inconsistencies and contradictions. As a result, the extraordinary capacity of humans to adapt to, explore and exploit their environment is always associated with a high degree of social complicity - and is always vulnerable to the vagaries of collective delusion.

The narratives that we create for ourselves naturally justify all our actions, reasonable and unreasonable. They make every perception, and every action based on them, appear to be part of a consistent, seamless whole. This is what Hom. Sapiens is really good at; we are myth-makers and myth-believers. The elaborate stories that we are surrounded by, our mythalities, form the basis of our outlook on the world. We are obviously an intelligent species, but on the whole we are far more concerned with maintaining the narrative matrix of our existence than seriously questioning any part of it. Countless studies have found that where new information conflicts with our existing beliefs, that our mind/brains are extraordinarily adept at maintaining older beliefs rather than revise them. We humans are a smart bunch but, unfortunately, are also capable of holding the most stupid ideas and carrying out the most bizarre activities.

Read on …

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